Shakespeare in Stratford and London: Ten Eyewitnesses Who Saw Nothing - Part 9
by Ramon L. Jiménez
Queen Henrietta Maria
Our eighth eyewitness is Henrietta Maria, the fifteen-year-old daughter of King Henry IV of France and Marie de Médicis, who, by arrangement, became the wife and Queen of Charles I soon after his coronation as King of England in 1625. The new American colony of Maryland, founded in 1632, was given its name in honor of Henrietta Maria.
Both Charles and Queen Henrietta were theater buffs and enthusiastic patrons of the drama. King Charles even collaborated on a play with James Shirley in the 1630s, and was so fond of Shakespeare that he kept a copy of the Second Folio by his bedside. In this copy are found the alternative titles he assigned to several of the plays, such as “Pyramus and Thisbe” for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and “Malvolio” for Twelfth Night (Birrell 45). To the Puritans, who executed Charles in 1649, his dissolute character was exemplified by his love of plays. One Puritan pamphlet asserted that he would have succeeded as king “had he studied scripture half so much as he did Ben Jonson or Shakespeare” (Campbell 107).
Queen Henrietta was also an amateur playwright, and even more enamored of the stage than her husband. She was the first English monarch to attend a performance in a public playhouse, and enjoyed performing the leading roles in her own masques at Court —behavior that shocked the English public (Campbell 312). According to Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, the word “actress” was first used in reference to her (187). In her 1632 masque Tempe Restored, professional women singers took the stage for the first time in England. Joining her on the stage on many occasions were several of her ladies-in-waiting, including Beatrice, the Countess of Oxford, wife of the 19th Earl, Sir Robert de Vere.
In 1642 Charles and his Parliament reached an impasse over taxes, and when he attempted to arrest five members, Parliament was moved to authorize an army, and a Civil War broke out. The Queen was in Holland at the time, but she quickly began rounding up support for the Royalist army. Early the next year she landed in Yorkshire with a large supply of ammunition she had solicited on the continent. From there she journeyed south to relieve her husband who was in the field with his army near Oxford. Traveling on horseback, the “Generalissima,” as she called herself, reached Warwickshire in early July 1643, and on the 11th arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon at the head of an army of three thousand foot, thirty companies of horse and dragoons, six pieces of artillery, and 150 wagons (Plowden 186).
The records of the Stratford Corporation document the visit of Queen Henrietta Maria and the substantial expense it incurred to provide a banquet for her (Fox 24). Although specific records of it are lacking, scholars accept a tradition that the Queen stayed two nights at New Place, then the home of William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Thomas Nash (Lee 509; Schoenbaum 305).
Queen Henrietta was an exceptional letter-writer. Hundreds of her letters to her husband, her nephew Prince Rupert, and others have been collected and printed. But none of the letters she wrote before or after her visit to Stratford-upon-Avon contains any mention of her stay at New Place, or any indication that she had met the daughter and granddaughter of the famous playwright whom she emulated and whom her husband venerated.
What could be the explanation for this? By 1643 there had been several visitors to the Holy Trinity Church, where the statue of William Shakespeare had been installed more than twenty years earlier (Chambers 2:239, 242-3). But if Queen Henrietta walked over to the church to see the memorial to the famous playwright, she never wrote about it. One explanation might be that she knew that the Stratford Shakespeare was a myth. A decade earlier she had been closely associated with Beatrice, the Countess of Oxford, and her husband, Robert de Vere, the 19th Earl. She also knew Ben Jonson, the artificer of the First Folio, who was still writing masques for the Court in the 1630s. Any one of the three might have told her about the aristocrat who concealed his writings by adopting a commoner’s name as his pseudonym. Any one of them might have told her that she would find nothing about the playwright Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Further evidence suggests that plays and playwrights were not welcome in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is well known that during the thirty years between 1568 and 1597 numerous playing companies visited and performed there. But by the end of this period the Puritan officeholders in the town finally attained their objective of banning all performances of plays and interludes. In 1602 the Corporation of Stratford ordered that a fine of ten shillings be imposed on any official who gave permission for any type of play to be performed in any city building, or any inn or house in the borough. This in a year that five or six plays by Shakespeare, their alleged townsman, were being performed in London.iv
In 1612, just four years before their neighbor’s death, this fine was increased to ten pounds. In 1622, when work on the great First Folio was in progress, the Stratford Corporation paid the King’s Players the sum of six shillings not to play in the Town Hall (Fox 143-4). Surely by 1622, some thirty years after his name had first appeared in print, the people of Stratford would have been aware that one of England’s greatest poets and playwrights had been born, raised, and then retired in their own town. That is, if such a thing were actually true.
Birrell, T. A.: English Monarchs and their Books: From Henry II to Charles II. London: British Library, 1986.
Campbell, Oscar and E. G. Quinn, eds. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. New York: MJF Books, 1966.
Plowden, Alison. Henrietta Marie: Charles I’s Indomitable Queen. Stroud, Gloucs: Sutton, 2001.
Lee, Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. 14th ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968.
Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare, A Compact Documentary Life. New York: OUP, 1977.
Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 v. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.
Fox, Levi. The Borough Town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Stratford-upon-Avon, 1953.